What Is The Origin Of (232)?…

Lark about

I remember during my far and distant schooldays that our poor unfortunate teachers would often be driven to such distraction by their unruly pupils that they would exhort us to stop larking around. By this they meant playing around, acting the fool, doing anything other than what we were supposed to. The warning was usually enough to restore order. But where does lark come from?

As is often the case with etymological searches, there are a couple of contenders. The most obvious is the skylark, once a common sight and sound in the English countryside but now one that is pretty rare. I cannot recall the last time I heard one sing. On the ground they are not much to look at but once they are airborne, they soar and hover and treat us to a long, unbroken song which can last two or three minutes a time, delivered with a clear, distinctive warble.

So enchanting and distinctive was the lark’s song, that it inspired poets and composers to laud their praises, most notably Percy Bysshe Shelley in his To A Skylark and George Meredith’s wonderful The Lark Ascending from 1881, which formed the basis for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ composition of the same name. “He rises and begins to round,/ he drops the silver chain of sound,/ of many links without a break,/ in chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,/ for singing till his heaven fills,/ ‘tis love of earth that he instils.

An exaltation of larks, the collective noun for larks which dates back to at least the 15th century, must have been a wondrous thing to hear and see.

So common a sight were they and so distinctive and playful was their behaviour that their name was used to describe children who played and scavenged around the banks of rivers, mudlarks, and slightly older youths who played around on the rigging of ships, skylarks. The Student’s Comprehensive Anglo-Bengali Dictionary of 1802 picked up the latter, defining skylarking as “the act of running about the rigging of a vessel in sport; frolicking.

But there is an alternative derivation, from the northern English dialect word lake or laik, which first appeared in the early 14th century, meaning to play. It almost certainly owed its origin to the Old Norse word leika, which was used to describe play, as opposed to work. It was used in the English translation of 1350 of the French romance poem, Guillaume de Palerme; “he layked him long while to lesten at mere.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was used by the sporting fraternity such as jockeys and grooms, making an appearance in Francis Robinson’s A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases collected in Whitby and the Neighbourhood in 1835 as lairk. The conjecture is that the intrusive r is the work of southern Englishmen trying to make sense of the impenetrable Yorkshire accent.

The Lexicon Balatronicum; a dictionary of buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence of 1811 – if you are going to be dipped, it is as well that the thief be eloquent, I feel – defined lark as “a piece of merriment. People playing together jocosely.” Alas, it gives no clue as to whether it is derived from the bird or the Yorkshire dialect word.

What is clear, though, is that usage from then onwards associated lark with playfulness and frolicking. To prove that the transition of a noun into a verb is not a modern affectation, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Hawker wrote in his diary in 1813, “having larked all the way down the road” and by 1844 The Living Age, an American magazine, was describing a Mr Larkins as “eternally larking about somut or other.

Although I am attracted to the skylark theory, I find it hard to ignore the dialect term, laik or lairk.


The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Two

Half Moon Street, W1

Running from Curzon Street in the north to Piccadilly in the south, Half Moon Street is a thoroughfare associated with London’s literary life and has more than a little whiff of scandal about it.

Built from around 1730, the street took its name from the pub which stood on the corner with Piccadilly and one can easily imagine, given its location, that it was a lively and thriving place, the Gazetteer recording on September 6th 1758 the death on the previous Friday of “Mrs Winter, who many years kept the Half Moon Ale-house, in Piccadilly, in which it is Said she acquired near 8,000:, which she has left to her poorest relations.

The Public Advertiser for March 11th 1768 announced that “yesterday, James Boswell Esq, arrived from Scotland at his lodgings in Half Moon Street,” where he entertained, amongst others, his old mucker, Samuel Johnson. One of the capital’s great actors at the turn of the 19th century, Mr Pope, lived at No 5, which is where his first wife and actress, the former Miss Young, died at the age of 26. The celebrated physician, Samuel Merriman, was to be found at No 26 from 1813 to 1825, arriving rather too late to help the unfortunate Mrs Pope.

Percy Bysshe Shelley lived on the street, and according to a description of him by his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, in his biography of the poet, published in 1858, he cut a dash sitting by a window “book in hand, with lively gestures and bright eyes; so that Mrs N said he wanted only a pan  of clear water and a fresh turf to look like some young lady’s lark hanging outside for air and song.

Much of the street was taken up by private houses and what were termed in the 19th century as bachelor’s chambers where young single male tenants, who had come to the metropolis to seek their fame and fortune, could obtain accommodation. Among the many illuminati who found accommodation in these establishments over the years were the dress designer, Raoul de Veulle, the novelist Hugh Walpole, Aubrey Beardsley, Osbert Sitwell and the poet, Wilfred Owen.

A rather larger than life resident in the 1840s was Lola Montez. Irish born, although she claimed to be Spanish, she was a dancer whose lack of technique was more than made up by enthusiasm. Her piece de resistance was the Tarantula, in which she searched for an imaginary spider in her clothing. Lola was arrested at the street in 1849 on a charge of bigamy and had a string of lovers, including Franz Liszt and Ludwig, King of Bavaria.

But the street is particularly associated with Oscar Wilde and in its day it was the acknowledged epicentre of London’s bohemian and theatrical quarter. Wilde places one of the principal characters of The Importance of being Ernest, Algernon Moncrieff, in bachelors’ chambers with “luxurious furnishings.” in the street. Wilde’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment saw the arty set move further east to Soho.

And who can forget that PG Wodehouse’s wonderful creations, Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, lived in Half Moon Street? Another fictional figure, Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond, lived at 60a.

But back to reality. The street is home to Fleming Hotel, founded by the eponymous Robert Fleming, former valet to the First Marquis of Anglesey, in 1851. The hotel’s founding is commemorated in a rather splendid stained-glass window depicting the Great Exhibition of that year.

The street, now a run of expensive hotels and even more expensive properties, has a fascinating history.